Isaiah 50’s juxtaposition of beauty and brutality is jarring and perhaps somewhat disconcerting. Yet that combination is part of what helps make it in so many ways reminiscent of daily life. After all, it sometimes feels as if we’re almost constantly moving from beauty to brutality (and then, so often, right back to beauty – and back yet again).
The prophet probably penned the words of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday in a time when the Persians are on the ascendancy and Israel’s Babylonian captor is in something of a decline. Israel’s sins have dragged Isaiah’s first readers far from the beautiful home God had promised their ancient ancestors and granted their parents and grandparents. But the second half of Isaiah’s prophecy anticipates a time when God will bring Israel home.
That brightening future, however, puts Israel’s fortunes in stark contrast to those of the one who narrates our Old Testament lesson. After all, while it suggests Israel’s fortunes are on the rise, the prophet’s seem moving in the opposite direction. His persecution is both sad and perhaps a bit surprising. The prophet seems to be, after all, as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, the kind of person most of us would want for a friend. He seems to know just when to talk and when to listen.
Of course, such assaults on “nice” prophets are hardly unique. As Hoezee noted in an earlier Sermon Commentary on this text, “Whether it’s the assassin’s bullet that shatters the face of Martin Luther King, Jr., pierces the body of Mahatma Gandhi or takes out Abraham Lincoln; whether it’s the Tiananmen Square tanks that threaten to run over non-violent students or the powers that be that sequester away in prison for years and years a Nelson Mandela, those with a gift to speak sustaining words for the weary and listen to the cries of those who need to be heard are indeed turned over to the smiters and the biters and the spitters and the whole shameful lot of those who carry out this world’s worst persecutions.”
Yet even in the face of that, Isaiah 50’s narrator insists he has not rebelled against God’s call to speak God’s truth. He notes that he has “not drawn back” (5). We imagine his courageous ministry stems in part from the strong sense of calling from God that verses 4-5a describe.
He recognizes that God has given him not just his mission, but also his ability to carry it out well. God has given him the tongue of a teacher. However, God has also given him the ear of someone who’s willing to be taught so that he can be an effective communicator. Morning by morning God awakens the prophet to listen to God like a student.
This serves as a reminder to those who write and read Sermon Commentaries. Most of us too are, after all, teachers who are tempted to think that the most important qualification of a good teacher is the ability to communicate effectively. Isaiah 50 reminds us that good teachers are, first of all, good students. Those who wish to teach God’s truths are eager to hear God speak before they even dare to speak on God’s behalf. So we pray for open ears before we pray for articulate tongues.
This is, however, also true of those who listen to teachers and preachers. North American culture in particular seems increasingly quicker to speak than to listen. Christians of every political and theological stripe also seem increasingly quick to speak on God’s behalf. We’re naturally more eager to put our tongues than our ears to good use.
So those who preach and teach Isaiah 50 do well to remind anyone who claims to speak for God, whether formally or informally, to listen to God first. We urge each other to pray for open ears before we pray for nimble tongues. We call each other to be diligent students of God’s Word and ways before we’re speakers of God’s truths.
Of course, as Isaiah 50:5-9a reminds us, even good teachers may suffer for speaking for God. “The sovereign Lord has opened” the prophet’s ears. Yet what’s his “reward”? Brutal persecution and suffering. However, while he doesn’t explain the cause of that misery, the prophet insists it hasn’t deterred him. He, instead, allows his assailants to both physically and emotionally hurt him deeply. After all, few things hurt more than having one’s beard yanked out. And few things are more humiliating than having someone spit on and mock you.
Yet the prophet doesn’t let those assaults push him away from his prophetic calling. He doesn’t flinch when people do their worst to him. Because he’s confident God will ultimately vindicate him, the prophet continues to listen for God’s Word. Because he trusts the Lord to help him, he continues to resolutely speak God’s truths.
Our text leaves the identity of its “me” anonymous. Some suggest the narrator is the prophet Isaiah himself. Others suggest the suffering prophet is the community of Israel herself. Yet perhaps our text deliberately leaves its narrator’s identity anonymous. After all, almost countless people and communities down through the ages could certainly voice his message.
On Passion Sunday, Christians can hardly hear Isaiah 50 without thinking about the ghastly suffering the Romans inflicted on Jesus during the last few hours of his life. The Matthean text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday vividly describes Jesus humiliation. Its description of Jesus’ suffering is, in fact, perhaps more graphic than the other three gospel accounts. Matthew 25:27-31’s description of the Roman soldiers’ wanton brutality toward Jesus is especially chilling.
Yet with a little imagination we can also hear persecuted Middle Eastern, African and Asian Christians speaking Isaiah 50:5-6. Perhaps those whom we teach and to whom we preach find its words resonate with their own experiences of following Jesus the Christ.
The suffering teacher is able to confidently stand strong because he knows his God helps him. The One who vindicates the suffering teacher is “near” (8). As a result, the prophet is willing to face his accusers head-on. He trusts, after all, that God is both his defender and judge.
Yet our text’s narrator also seems to have a larger purpose for describing both his misery and his hope. Dennis Olson suggests it presents a way for the exiled Israelite community to move hopefully forward. She too, after all, has been battered and weakened. Yet the narrator suggests that the Israelites can endure that misery because they know that God stands with them to both defend and finally vindicate them.
But, as Olson adds, Isaiah 50 can also be a model for the whole Body of Christ. We naturally respond to physical and physical attacks by lashing out at our assailants. Or we withdraw from those who attack us without speaking a prophetic word to their violence.
Isaiah 50’s narrator provides the kind of response to others’ attacks that God equips us to offer. After all, its narrator harms neither her attacker nor herself in response to the violence inflicted on her. He remains within the community to both hear and speak God’s Word because he is confident that while people may condemn him, God will graciously help him.
There are no guarantees people won’t persecute us. There are no guarantees nice people will finish first. There are no guarantees God’s adopted sons and daughters will be popular, healthy and wealthy. God’s only guarantees are that God will never leave or forsake those whom God loves for Jesus’ sake. The only guarantees are that nothing in all of creation can separate God’s people from God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. The only guarantees are that when we pass through deep waters or hot fires, God goes with us, by God’s Word and Spirit.
Yet it’s regrettable that the Lectionary, in its apparent obsession with omitting anything that’s uncomfortable, ignores the second part of verse 9. After all, there the narrator insists those who unjustly persecute him “will all wear out like a garment.” That doesn’t just remind unjust sufferers that God takes their misery very seriously. It also warns those who fail to act like Jesus that eventually, like an aging boxer, they’ll wear themselves out by causing other people so much grief.
When I was a college student, we learned and sang a lyrical setting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “Von wunderbaren Maechten still geborgen” (loosely translated as, “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered”). He wrote it just months before the Nazis hanged him for his Christian resistance to their murderous rule. In it Bonhoeffer includes the line, Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen, (loosely translated, “God is with us night and day”). In doing so, he reflects, among other things, Isaiah’s confidence that “He who vindicates me is near” (9).
Bonhoeffer’s “God is with us night and morning” is perhaps a deliberate play on the German military’s Gott mit uns, (loosely translated, “God with us”). After all, that military inscribed that motto on its armor between the time of German unification in 1871 and the end of the Third Reich. It reflected the German aristocracy and leadership’s confidence that God was with their military.
This offers Isaiah 50’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on our own confidence that God is with us, no matter what, even if our way is not God’s way. It offers us an opportunity to explore in what ways we try to baptize our own various causes in God’s purposes.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 9, 2017
Isaiah 50:4-9a Commentary